Europe, pay your trainees!

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The use of unpaid internship, traineeships or apprenticeships is a widespread practice and a sad reality across Europe.

Offering internships and traineeships to young people without real prospect of employment and adequate remuneration violates the original nature of these instruments, writes Brando Benifei.

Brando Benifei, a European Federalist from La Spezia, Italy, is one of the youngest MEPs. He has been the chair of European affairs for the Young Democrats and Vice-President of ECOSY (youth organisation of PES) for four years.

Data published by the Commission in its Annual Growth Survey on the situation of the European economy confirms a series of trends: growth is steadily increasing in all member states; its beneficial effects are distributed within society in a very uneven fashion; dramatic regional and territorial disparities in terms of economic performances and social conditions persist at the EU level.

While the reappearance of upward figures as far as investment levels, employment rate and growth are concerned, is certainly welcome news. However, we cannot turn a blind eye to the profound unbalances this process brings along. In the past decade—against the background of globalisation, technological development and demographic change— we have seen significant changes in the labour market.

First, with regard to the very nature of work, which requires an ever more urgent update of educational systems and life-long learning and training schemes. Secondly, and importantly, in its structural component, meaning in the organisation of employment relations, in people’s access to social security and services, in salary levels, job security, work-life balance.

Today, a more in-depth labour market analysis, through the lens of intergenerational fairness, raises serious concerns. While working life is becoming longer and the nature of contractual relations less continuous, younger generations are faced with more and diverse challenges than older ones.

Firstly, in their access to the labour market – youth unemployment has been stagnating and remains, even today, at double levels than regular unemployment, with a NEET rate (a young person who is “Not in Education, Employment, or Training) still unacceptably high. There is a reason why we talk about “scarring effects” of youth unemployment, or of European youth as a “lost generation”.

Secondly, youth is struggling to retain a stable employment position which would allow them to enjoy quality working conditions, access to social rights and sustainable prospects for future pension entitlements, decent health coverage and access to necessary services.

The use by employers of internship, traineeships or apprenticeships in an abusive way is a widespread practice as well as a sad reality across Europe. Too often, this has become the opportunity to make use of a “cheap” contractual arrangement replacing regular forms of employment, therefore contradicting the original educational and formative purpose of these instruments, designed to facilitate labour market access of young people, foster their employability and the development of skills.

Besides, the mushrooming of precarious, non-standard and atypical forms of employment, such as zero-hours contracts, voucher-based work, on-demand work, as well as the increased usage of forms of self-employment, create a situation which dangerously relegates young people to a position of vulnerability.

This brings along severe long-term consequences for the economy as a whole, in terms of sustainability, productivity or cohesion.

Stemming from the European Pillar of Social Rights, the European Union is addressing this problem by proposing a series of initiatives aimed at extending the coverage of social rights and social protection for those who fell into the gaps, loopholes or unfair practices determining labour relations.

The recently approved Quality Framework for Apprenticeships, which follows the Quality Framework for Traineeships already adopted in 2014, introduces common criteria for the quality and effectiveness of apprenticeships, which should be implemented by member states in their national schemes.

Importantly, the recommendation introduces clear indications for a decent remuneration or compensation of apprentices, a feature that was missing in the Quality Framework for trainees (and was its most evident shortcoming), and now we call on the Commission and Council to implement a due rectification.

Commissioner Marianne Thyssen, one of the key speakers at the upcoming European Youth Event (EYE) 2018, presented on 13 March the Social Fairness Package, which proposes to establish a European Labour Authority tasked with improving transparency on rights and obligations of workers and employers, in particular with a cross-border dimension, and strengthen the cooperation between national authorities. But it also proposes for a Council recommendation on social protection for all.

This initiative, complementing the proposal for a Directive on Transparent and Predictable Working Conditions, aims at ensuring that all EU member states provide access to adequate social security coverage to all workers and the self-employed, which correspond to roughly 40% of the working population.

Indeed, very worthwhile initiatives that will receive the European Parliament support. Nonetheless, I question the choice of a Council Recommendation, due to its non-binding nature, for the delivery of such critical objectives.

I have been working on the legal basis of the European Solidarity Corps, the programme launched last year by the Commission on the initiative of its President, Jean-Claude Juncker.

As rapporteur for the opinion in the Employment and Social Affairs Committee, I have proposed that all traineeships respect the highest quality standards.

In particular, traineeships must always be remunerated; should always be based on a written agreement indicating the educational and training objectives, the working conditions and the rights and obligations applicable; should have a minimum length but also a maximum one, to avoid a repetition of traineeships that do not lead to actual employment.

My hope is that by codifying the Quality Framework within an EU Regulation, we establish a series of basic principles for all future initiatives in the field of youth.

The two most important ones are:

a) EU money can in no way be used to finance low-quality measures;

b) young people’s due remuneration for the work they produce cannot be replaced by “experience or reputation”, a shameful and absurd formulation that appears only too often in the advertisements of traineeship opportunities.

The European Youth Event (EYE) 2018 on 1-2 June will address these matters in detail, and I am proud to be one of the featured MEPs who will be discussing and debating them directly with young people, who not only deserve to be involved but also need to be heard.

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